From William Playfair1
Paris 30th March 1791
I take the liberty of writing to you on an affair which concerns a great number of Idividuals as well as myself which liberty I would not take if it were not that from the total want of letters in answer to mine to Mr Duer of Newyork I am left in the most Cruel Situation Possible as well as a great number of individuals who have their near Relations in America.
I undertook eighteen Months ago to lay the Foundation of a Colony on the Sioto Lands for the Sale of which M: M: Cutler, Sergent2 & Duer had given a Procuration of Mr Barlow who himself was without Any of the Means necessary to put in Practice Such a Plan. The Lands were not paid to congress; Mr Barlow had never seen them & knew little about them; he had no money to Expend on the affair, no connexions and did not Speak french. He was made known to me by a third Person3 & told me his Plan was to sell 3 millions of acres of Land. This was certainly an Idea formed without Reflection as neither an Individual nor any Company could be supposed to pay 18 millions4 for lands uninhabited & unknown & which did not belong to the Persons who were to sell them.5 It was three Months after I knew Mr Barlow before I conceived that their was any Means of Undertaking such a thing with any degree of success but the Revolution in France gave me the Idea that an Emigration would be possible & that Individual purchasers might be found. To abridge the History I undertook for 15 Pr cent on the Sales6 to begin the affair at my own Expence. It was begun but it appeared necessary to give facilities to the First Purchasers who might set an Example to the others, this was done upon the Idea that the affair would go on which in the fact it did for several months in an astonishing Manner but was stoped short by the want of preparations in America as was promised & Expected. Our Errors in the Prices of Cattle & other things have created great discontents great Expences & merited complaints. The Total want of Letters from America has suspended the affair.7 There are several hundreds of People who have their Relations in America & who are in the most unquiet state which as I have nothing to show respecting their Relations who are gone is rather an ill looking piece of business. Add to that that Mr Barlow who was here has Run away in debt without informing me or any other Person.
I have on all sides heard the Best character of Mr Duer & I am informed that he Runs a great Risque of Being Burned by the advances he has made. It is Clear likewise that the whole Colony will suffer if the affair stops where it is but I am afraid it will do so as there has been a Mr Walker here who said he was commissioned by the Company to look into things but who Refused to shew his power of attorney or procuration and who Refused to Enter with any degree of frankness or Candor into the Nature of the affair but who would considder it as goods bought & sold at a fixed Price on Each side. The fact is that he was disappointed as to some personal views & that from Mr Barlows want of Informing Mr Dewer the quantity of sales Mr Dewer had immagined when Walker left new york that there were one million of acres sold when their was not one hundred & fifty thousand acres & one 4th of that not paid for in values that are yet Realized.
I know that the Engagement taken with the Treasury of the United States by the company at New-york8 is not, nor cannot be fulfilled in the original terms therefore I am Ignorant Whether Messrs Duer & Co continue in the affair or not. I have the honour therefore Sir to adress myself to you & to send a memoir on the subject which is in French & which I take to be a justification of My Intentions & of my Conduct viewing the affair in its whole Extent which I did & I am surprised that any Person can do otherwise as the small affairs done were but to begin a colony and I will venture to say that if that Colony9 is in a thriving State & the People Contented and if at the same time a method is taken to Sell here without any great derangement in the Present form of sales there will be more than half the lands sold in Six months & Sold upon advantageous terms. If so then the United states would gain a number of Inhabitants, their Treasury would be paid amply for the Lands & Messrs Duer & co after being Repaid their advances would gain a large sum.
To accomplish these Points it would be well to renew the Arrangement with Messrs Duer & Co on other terms that the names may not appear to change & as it has already been Announced in a new Prospectus here which has been distributed every where that 9/10ths of the Price will be deposited untill possession is given it is not possible that any Risque can be Run of Giving Possession of Lands that will not be paid for so that the affair is Simple Plain & without any inconveniency.10 The Fears that Walker11 Pretends to have about not being Paid are as ill founded as they are unjust. It is impossible to touch here the 9/10ths in question & surely the 10th that remains is not more than is necessary to cover the Expences and pay whoever sells it. With Regard to the Plan that Walker has to Endeavour to Substitute Some of his Freinds in my Place, it is impracticable & in justice to all concerned as well as to My self I must say so.12 I have done nothing that merits such treatment. I have begun the affair & suffered the disagreable part & Run all the Risques. I have a Correspondence with & know the most Part of those who would go out the First upon good news ariving and as I have Contracted debts to support the thing till the news that arives shall determin whether in itself it is good or bad, I cannot think of submitting to so great an Injustice as it would be to substitute Mr Morris or any other of those Persons who have all along been the Enemies of the affair in My Place.13 I should therefore make my apeal to the Public & defend myself in the tribunals at the same time. The Affair would then be stopt as till the Bye past were settled nothing could go on and that it would take a prodigious time to do as none of the affairs here have been done in the Name of individuals but of a Fictitious Company which Circumstance alone would involve & render prodigiously Expensive & Tedious all the operations of a law suit. In a word this affair is only to be Carried on with Faith & Confidence. Nothing will be more agreable to me than that a Person should be sent over to verify & sign every sale & to Receive into his own hands the Titles to the deposit of the 9/10ths. In short there is no precautions possible for the surety of the affair that I would not with the Greatest Eagerness embrace; neither do I insist upon the Portion of Profit which by my original agreement with Mr Barlow was ceded to me for future sales. I only demand a Confidential honourable arrangement on both sides for the Carrying on the affair.
If on the Contrary it is determined to Stop short where we are, I have titles to deliver & quittances for money paid, which, deduction being made of the Percentage that was allowed to me by the original agreement do more than Balance the account for Lands Sold and which account I have Ready, tho’ as I told Mr Walker we could not with any degree of Propriety or common sence Balance the account untill the affair was stopt or the Plan of going on was settled. I nevertheless should have at the last agreed to settle with him if he would have shewn his Procuration & declared his intentions. I was obliged to summons him to shew them; he did not make any Answer. A Messanger waited upon him to obtain a verbal answer at least & to the messanger he only said that he had an advertisement Ready to put in the News papers against me & that his powers were deposed with a notaire whose name he gave. I went to the Notaire to see the Powers & took the Messanger with Me but Mr Walker had been there half an hour before & withdrawn the Powers which the Notaire declared he had not Read. After that I had nothing to do with Mr Walker & if he chuses to insert his advertisement he may do it but it will be answered in a Manner that will be more disagreable to him than he Expects because No Man has a Right to come and act as he has done in Paris. The circumstance of Mr Barlows evasion is sufficiently disagreable & disgracefull to his constituents without adding the Ruin of the affair by a Public Explanation of all the difficulties under which the affair lyes.14
I know that Mr Duer has been told lyes on My Account & as he does not know me I cannot wonder at his believing them this has been the Cause of his not writing to me15 but he can never give a Reason for not writing to some one Else to prevent those Ruinous mistakes that have been made and of which he himself will probably be the first victim.
I have taken the liberty to trouble you with this long letter. I send inclosed the account up to the time that the sales stopt and I have done the same to Mr Jefferson16 to whom I had the honour of being known when he was in France and I request your Interference in the affair in order to Enable some arrangement to take Place that will not Prevent the affair from terminating in the Ruin & disgrace of those who have begun it.
I am Sir with Respect your most obedient & most humble servant
ALS, Hamilton Papers, Library of Congress.
1. Playfair was an English adventurer who in 1789 was associated with Joel Barlow in the formation of a French company to sell the Scioto lands. Although Barlow was William Duer’s agent in this business, Duer did not maintain close contact with the proceedings. The venture collapsed in 1790.
2. The Reverend Manasseh Cutler and Winthrop Sargent were both founders of the Ohio Company. Cutler had helped draw up the articles of agreement of the company and went to Ohio in July, 1788, to aid in the establishment of the early Ohio settlements. He returned to Massachusetts in 1789. Sargent, who had surveyed in the Ohio country in 1786, was elected secretary of the Ohio Company in 1787 and was active in the planting of the Ohio settlements. In 1787 Congress appointed him secretary of the Northwest Territory.
For the relationship between the Ohio and Scioto groups, see Davis, Essays description begins Joseph Stancliffe Davis, Essays in the Earlier History of American Corporations (“Harvard Economic Studies,” XVI [Cambridge, 1917]). description ends , I, 130–43.
3. Colonel Samuel Blackden, an American who was selling Kentucky lands in Paris.
4. Eighteen million livres.
5. The Scioto Associates held an option on the land.
6. There is a difference of opinion concerning Playfair’s remuneration. See Theodore T. Belote, “The Scioto Speculation and the French Settlement at Gallipolis,” University Studies Published by the University of Cincinnati, III, No. 3 (September-October, 1907), 24; Davis, Essays description begins Joseph Stancliffe Davis, Essays in the Earlier History of American Corporations (“Harvard Economic Studies,” XVI [Cambridge, 1917]). description ends , I, 213; Milton Cantor, “Life of Joel Barlow” (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, Columbia University, 1954), 101.
7. Duer did not reply to Barlow’s letters, but in 1790 he and his associates sent Benjamin Walker to France to straighten out the company’s affairs.
8. In his study of the Scioto purchase, Theodore Belote described this transaction as follows:
“On October 27, 1789, Manasseh Cutler and Winthrop Sargent completed their negotiations with the Treasury Board for nearly six million acres of land. Two distinct contracts were drawn. One of these consisted in an absolute purchase of a million and a half acres of land lying along the Ohio River.… The second contract, like the first, was drawn between the Treasury Board and Manasseh Cutler and Winthrop Sargent, the latter acting for themselves and associates. This second contract was an option to purchase all the lands lying between the Ohio and Scioto rivers and the western boundary of the seventeenth range of townships, extending north to the tenth township from the Ohio. This contract included also the tract of land west of the seventeenth range of townships, south of the tenth township from the Ohio River, and north of the Ohio Company’s purchase.… From the river at its back, this was termed the ‘Scioto Tract.’ …
“In the eyes of Congress, officially at least, the two contracts described above were parts of one and the same transaction, and the Ohio Company was responsible for both. The Ohio Company had bought outright the first tract which was supposed to contain a million and a half of acres. The second or Scioto tract was to be paid for in six equal installments. The prompt payment by the Ohio Company for its one and a half millions of acres was the condition of the long term of credit allowed the Scioto Company by Congress. To make sure of the second contract, the first one had to be carried out, and William Duer advanced one hundred and forty-three thousand dollars to assist the Ohio Company in paying Congress, in order that his own interests in connection with the second contract might thereby be advanced.…
“On October 27, 1787, Manasseh Cutler and Winthrop Sargent ‘for themselves and associates’ transferred to William Duer and his associates ‘one equal moiety of the Scioto tract of land mentioned in the second contract above.’ By the terms of the transfer it was provided that the respective parties to the transaction were to be equally concerned in the disposal of the said lands either in Europe or America, as the circumstances would best admit. They were to share equally in any profit or loss which might arise in attempting to negotiate the sale of the same and in paying the purchase money to the United States. The property in question was the residue of the large tract purchased by Cutler and Sargent, namely, that not included in the actual purchase of the Ohio Company. It was to be divided into thirty shares, thirteen of which were to be the property of Duer. He was at liberty to admit such associates to his shares as he might think proper. In like manner thirteen shares were to become the property of Manasseh Cutler and Winthrop Sargent. The remaining four shares were to be disposed of in Europe.…” (Belote, “The Scioto Speculation,” 17–19.)
A copy of the transfer from Cutler and Sargent to Duer, dated October 29, 1787, is printed in Belote, “The Scioto Speculation,” 65–67.
9. The colony was Gallipolis on the Ohio River, a few miles below the mouth of the Kanawha.
10. Apparently this is a reference to the proceedings of the second Scioto Company, which Barlow organized in July, 1790, to succeed the bankrupt first company.
11. Walker disapproved of the reorganization.
12. Walker sought to establish a third Scioto Company, but this came to nothing.
13. Gouverneur Morris was hostile to the company.
14. Walker “became convinced that Playfair was a scoundrel and in a published advertisement denounced him and warned the public to purchase no Scioto lands from him. Playfair replied in kind the next day and attempted to assure the public that he alone had ‘any authority to sell those lands or negotiate the effects,’ but soon, it seems, disappeared with what funds remained unspent” (Davis, Essays description begins Joseph Stancliffe Davis, Essays in the Earlier History of American Corporations (“Harvard Economic Studies,” XVI [Cambridge, 1917]). description ends , I, 244).
15. Playfair wrote to Duer on December 27, 1790, declaring that the company had sold only one hundred and forty-three thousand acres, but he did not explain what happened to the money he had received in payment for the land. See Belote, “The Scioto Speculation,” 42–43; Davis, Essays description begins Joseph Stancliffe Davis, Essays in the Earlier History of American Corporations (“Harvard Economic Studies,” XVI [Cambridge, 1917]). description ends , I, 244, note 4.
16. See Playfair to Thomas Jefferson, March 20, 1791 (ALS, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress).